Community-led transformation: The key to sustainable rural water supply and management

By Marcus Lim and Stanley Samuel / Co-founders of ECOSOFTT 28/07/2019

Today, more than 780 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion do not have access to proper sanitation facilities. Most of these underprivileged live in rural areas. While there are considerable improvements in countries such as China, the overall global situation remains dire. Such low levels of access to safe drinking water in rural areas ultimately affects urban areas negatively due to pollution of water sources, higher healthcare costs and the impact on the food chain, among other factors. 

It is commonly held that the water and sanitation needs in developing countries, especially in rural areas, can only be met by large investments in infrastructure by the public sector and large private utilities companies. However, the low population density and lack of funds cannot limit the reach of conventional centralized water treatment systems and networks. As a result, major technology, business models and funding model innovations will be needed to address this major water, environmental and social issue.

There has a been a major push by governments, aid organizations and multi-lateral institutions to provide water and sanitation services to rural communities in developing countries such as India, which contains the world’s largest population without access to clean water and basic sanitation. 

While the intent of many such initiatives are commendable, the current models suffer from several limitations: 

  • Standalone interventions, such as hand pumps or bore wells without recharge, building of toilets without water supply and management of human waste;
  • Lack of community engagement, mobilization and capacity building, leading to long term maintenance problems;
  • Insufficient deployment of appropriate technology, especially for treatment of contaminated water and wastewater;
  • Inadequate education and social change towards improved sanitation practices, leading to unused or misused toilets;
  • Governance problems in deployment and accountability of funds allocated;
  • Failure to address an important root cause of the problems – lack of livelihood improvement opportunities.

The Community Led Transformation for Water, Sanitation, Wastewater and Livelihoods was started by ECOSOFTT in India. The basic principles of the program are:

  • 100% inclusion: No family or unit is left out;
  • 100% engagement: The whole community has to participate, contribute and work individually and collectively;
  • Self-governance: The community has to take care of their own progress and development with commitment to undertake development work on an ongoing basis;
  • Caste and gender equality: Women and men of different social strata will participate equally and have equal rights;
  • Value-based commitment: Skill-based training and agreement on areas that are non-negotiable for community benefit, such as no open defecation, no pollution and contamination of water sources, involving themselves in open vocational training and improving their livelihoods




  • Early Conditions
    Silua Village, with a population of 200 in 36 households, was at the bottom of pyramid. On average, each family lived on less than US$5 per day. The only source of water was a polluted rivulet and scattered hand pumps, which ran dry during the summer. Often, the villagers, especially women, had to spend two to four hours a day fetching (contaminated) water. There were no toilets; everyone practiced open defecation, which contaminated water sources further. 
  • Project Execution
    A Community Led Transformation program was initiated by ECOSOFTT in 2013. The key activities in the project over a nine-month period included:
  • A comprehensive survey of each household, including demographics, employment and income level, education, health, access to energy, water and sanitation;
  • Engagement and buy-in from village elders;
  • Development of model toilets;
  • A written agreement signed by the head of each household to participate in the program;
  • Collection of INR1,000 (US$15) per household towards a village corpus fund that was managed by the village itself;
  • Training of villagers to build and maintain the system;
  • Design and supervision of construction of water tank, toilets and mini-network


  • Results

The project provided critical and sustainable access to water and sanitation for Silua Village. In tangible terms, the following were delivered:

  • Clean water supply through local bore well to each person at 75 litres per capita per day;
  • One toilet and bathing room for each of the 36 households;
  • A wastewater treatment system that enables ground water recharge and nutrient recovery for sustainable eco-friendly development;
  • Improved livelihood opportunities for villagers through vocational training for young men and women;
  • A village council with full gender and caste equality that takes charge of governance and infrastructure maintenance;
  • Personal hygiene, health, menstrual health, nutrition, education and well-being awareness through partnerships with other NGOs.

The approach to water management and sanitation is also holistic and integrated, with management of "Source to Source" by sustainable extraction of water, and recharge of groundwater through treatment technology based on nature-based principles.

As demonstrated by the villagers in Silua, the integrated and sustainability-driven approach to Water, Sanitation, Wastewater and Livelihoods is the key to success in rural water management. It dispels the myth that rural communities are unwilling and unable to contribute financially for their water needs. Silua has become a model village and the villagers’ lives have been transformed, while there is now recognition from aid organizations, local and state government to scale up the model.

In addition to project funding, it is implementation capacity that will become the imperative to scale up this successful model across India and other developing countries. Given the massive needs, more participants from all sectors, including corporates, individuals, students and last-mile entrepreneurs will be needed in this movement.

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